Notes – Lacan’s Seminar on Anxiety (X): 14 NOVEMBER 1962

Completed Graph of Desire

I offer these notes from Lacan’s 10th Seminar not because they are comprehensive, nor because they are accurate, but rather because they are trueBy true, I mean, simply, that they are true to my struggle. I am reading this seminar for the first time and find, immediately, a number of difficulties which require my attention. First of all, Lacan places his completed graph of desire at the forefront of the seminar – in the introduction to his introduction – so as to demonstrate its necessity: “this graph, which I apologize for having pestered you with for such a long time, but which is all the same necessary, since its reference-value will appear to you, I think, ever more effective.”

For so many years I have avoided the aforementioned “completed” graph. (As we shall see, there are other versions of it.) I thought I could get along without it. Now, because I will be helping Dr. Levi Bryant teach a course on this seminar at the Global Center for Advanced Studies, I am forced to pay it some attention. I want to note immediately that it was by ‘casting off’ the graph, as it were, avoiding it, that I also failed to face the profound anxiety that it provoked inside of me for having not understood it. All of this makes some sense, then, because Lacan makes it clear that he introduced the graph of desire early in this seminar precisely to ‘toss us’ all into anxiety. What is this ‘casting’ or ‘tossing’ of which Lacan speaks? He clearly chose these words carefully – like all words he speaks, but also, more particularly, like all words he speaks within this seminar of November 1962 where his concerns were, by good fortune, etymological in nature.

Jeter, in French, is to “throw” or “cast” off, and there are those who, we are told, approached the problem of anxiety through Jeter by placing the emphasis on the Je, the I. These, of course, are the existentialists: Kierkegaard, Marcel, and, closest to Lacan, Heidegger. But these philosophies, centered as they are on the I, formed out of haste, out of great confusion and disorder – out of disarray. Lacan cautions about these approaches to the topic of anxiety. He does not want us to act out of haste to eradicate by understanding anxiety.

Schema “R”

So, allow me to work through some of this anxiety rather than continue to cast it off. The graph of desire seemed to have appeared most prominently within the fifth seminar on the formations of the unconscious (1957-8). Five years later, in 1962, it appears in front of us. Some have argued that the graph goes back even further to Lacan’s Schema R, and yet we also know that Schema R has its roots in Schema L, Lacan’s first great schema. So we are placed at a development, retroactively, of his previous schemas – a working through which inaugurates the completed graph we have before us.

It seems to me that what matters about the “completed” graph is its function for Lacan’s students. If we google the graph of desire we can find all sorts of students trying to decode it. Over and over again we find writings: “it would take years to understand this graph,” “this graph is too difficult to understand,” and so on. We see the anxiety that this provokes in those who are confronted with it: it sits like a roadblock within Lacan’s text. Those of us who practice reading to the letter, without understanding, will find it difficult to do so when this image pops up: it forces us to stop, to think, to slow down. In a word, it forces us to not act in haste against anxiety. So we come to understand the function of the placement of the graph.

We also come to understand the function of the placement of Lacan himself. This is his last year lecturing at Sainte-Anne (hospital). He began lecturing at Sainte-Anne in 1952, where he was a psychiatrist, and finished during 1962. He returned, ultimately to speak about the “walls” of Sainte-Anne and the “walls” of analysis, in 1971 for his 19th Seminar (entitled “Or Worse” or “The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst”). In 1971 we are provoked to think back about the meaning of Lacan’s function within the walls of Sainte-Anne.

In any case, I return to the concept “anxiety”. Lacan’s claim is not that he chose this topic arbitrarily – indeed, in some sense he finds himself moved toward these concepts (these topics for his seminars) not by choice so much as by good fortune – but that the concept and the teaching which shall hereafter unfold makes all that was stated before a bit more coherent or cohesive. He even goes so far as to claim that the concept and the new teaching will make everything which came before h‘old together a little tighter’. This should make us pause for a moment. We should anticipate this ‘holding together a little tighter’ as if it were a net, a net which holds all those signifiers, all those words, spoken in previous seminars and writings – everything before November of 1962.

Indeed, that is what a “net” does. We can imagine that the graph of desire is a net of sorts. It certainly looks like one. If we simplify the graph by turning to one of its early formations, we can see that the net has two threads: one thread begins in the pre-symbolic intentions of the individual and ends at the split or barred subject ($), but only after crossing over another thread, namely, the thread which strings together one signifier to another. A net is therefore what pins language together while simultaneously splitting the subject in half, in effect castrating him.

Simple Graph of Desire
Simple Graph of Desire

But the graph of desire also looks like a “choke pear,” the torture device. How does it work? You turn the screw on the end and the forks or spoons spread outward by ever increasing the circumference. You place the one end in the anus, mouth, or vagina of the candidate, and screw the other end. This, I suppose, gives new meaning to the phrase “He screwed me over.” I suppose if we think for a moment of the individual as a net, a new which holds a bunch of signifiers – or, more to the point, a net which is a bunch of signifiers – then we can see the anxiety that would come from using such a device to open up one of the holes in the net.

“Choke Pear”

So, what is the function of a net for the subject? The net can be used to capture something – an image perhaps – of the other, of the self, or of the other’s view of the self. This is what Lacan names “narcissistic capture” (a phrase he uses several times). You can see why, then, Lacan claimed that “there is no safety net for anxiety.” Lacan said that anxiety exists wherever the mesh of the net has holes – no net, however tightly tied, can capture anxiety. The specular image [which is denoted as i(a) in the graph of desire, the ideal-ego; but also, with reference to image of the ego-ideal, I(A)] “snares” the subject on the movement toward jouissance. We saw the first knot in this net articulated with Schema L, across the imaginary to a’ access.

Okay, we need to slow down here a lot. This sentence – the one I just wrote “The specular image ‘snares’ the subject on the movement toward jouissance – has a lot going on which we can not take for granted. We need to stop and think about the word “movement” because it will be important for something which follows. So, by stopping on the word movement, we arrive at the first concept. But before I turn to it, I want to make a short detour.

Put simply, movement is not something which moves so much as something we pass through. Movement is a function. Let me provide you with an example. When I was in community college 14 years ago, I specialized in Game Programming. Part of the challenge, in the advanced courses, was to make three dimension first-person perspective video games. We needed to construct a program which moved a man through a maze/world. So, there are two major things here: the point in space which moves (i.e., the man) and the environment (i.e., the “walls”, the maze). I quickly learned a trick to avoid writing advanced calculations in my computer program. At the time I thought my technique was quite narcissistic: I made the world move instead of the man. That is, when I pressed “up” to move forward, I would simply move the world, the maze, toward the man. And so on. Georges Bataille once stated that this was how man viewed the world: he walked and the earth moved to him. How narcissistic, eh? Upon reflection, this is not actually as narcissistic as we think: what Lacan teaches us here is that man is the wall, or, if you like, the function through which the world must pass.

Lacan offers us three concepts which I will write immediately: INHIBITION, SYMPTOM, ANXIETY. These three concepts are extracted from Freud’s text by the same name. (But Lacan is not interested in digging through the text anymore [he spent too many years doing that already!]). These three concepts are not at all on the same platform. Lacan invites us to place them on staggered lines, each within its own column and each within its own row, as follows:


Without dragging this on, I will replicate the entire chart that Lacan ends up producing:

Inhibition Impediment Embarrassment ($)
Emotion Symptom X
Turmoil X Anxiety

So, we have nine ordinal values (two of them without name, simply marked X) and two other terms, namely, “difficulty” and “movement”, which describe the direction of ranking as well as the type of adjustment. “Movement” describes the ranking from top to bottom and “Difficulty” describes the ranking from left to right. Now, if you will allow me, I am speculating: Lacan does not call these ordinal values. And yet, that is precisely what they are: we can see that there is an ordering here from left to right and from top to bottom. We also know that the ordering is different in either case: from top to bottom there is something called “movement” and from left to right there is something called “difficulty”. We are led to believe, then, that things get more difficult from left to right and that things get more mobile from top to bottom.

An inhibition certainly has to do with movement. It is the halting of movement. Movement stops with inhibition. But, Lacan points out, it also has to do with “keeping in check.” So perhaps it is even of the “order” of prohibition. Moving from Inhibition to Impediment we see that this “keeping in check” offers more difficulty than inhibition. It makes sense: to be inhibited means that it is a problem of the getting starting and to be impeded means that it is a problem of not being allowed to start. So, impediment is to be ensnared. To the right of impediment is embarrassment, which, in French, carries the sense of discomfort, nuisance, confusion, within a situation of quandary and annoyance.

I added the symbol for the barred subject ($) beside the word embarrassment because Lacan claims that the two are linked. The lived experience of embarrassment is $, it is when you don’t know what to do with yourself anymore and so you shield yourself, you put on a mask. So, in terms of movement, embarrassment is a ‘slight form of anxiety’. From inhibition, which is a halting of movement, down to emotion, there is a movement. Emotion is a movement which disintegrates – to be clear, Lacan is making plenty of etymological connections that I invite you to verify: emotion, from the 1570s, refers to “a (social) movement, stirring, agitation [french].” Lacan picks up on all of these connections, noting that it also, in Latin, has “ex-”, meaning “out”. In fact, it was only extended in 1808 to include any feeling whatsoever. And indeed this is how the word “emotion” is used in contemporary English. Emotion is not the same as Anxiety, although many people believe it to be so. Emotion, a “catastrophic reaction” has been used to refer to any number of things including anger, rage, and so on.

At this point, with emotion, we are some squares away from anxiety, maintaining some distance. Turmoil, the next square down, indicates more movement, and less difficulty than anxiety. It is certainly closer than emotion to anxiety. Indeed, Emoi, from the early emotion, is turmoil inasmuch as it means trouble – to become deeply troubled.

So we see: embarrassment is most difficult, but it is not anxiety. Turmoil involves the most movement, but it is also not anxiety. Anxiety is both very difficult, and involves lots of movement. What could this “movement” mean then? Lacan does not seem to indicate what is at stake here: for my part, I shall say that movement is a provocation. It is to be movement, or, rather, to be moved.

So, if anxiety is not an emotion, then what is it? Lacan claims that it is an affect. Let us turn to the etymological dictionary for assistance. In the 1630s, affect implied “to make an impression upon” or “to attack”, or “to infect.” Interestingly, and this will come in handy in later seminars when Lacan turns his attention to the drive, it also means, from early French, Latin, and English, “to aim at, aspire to, desire.” So anxiety is an affect, it is that which takes aim, attacks, impresses upon, our selves to some extent.

Of course, many people today, and even during Lacan’s time (as he noted in passing), believed that Lacan was not interested in affects. But Lacan claims that this is not correct. Lacan claims that he showed us that affect is not the subject in its raw form, though the subject has a structural relationship to affect. Neither is affect repressed. Rather, affect, and by connection anxiety, is unfastened, it drifts about – it is displaced, inverted, and so on. This ‘difting about’ of anxiety indicates its placement on the bottom, vertical axis, of “movement” – it moves more than emotion, but it is also much more difficult than emotion.

Finally, what are repressed are signifiers. So here we can see that anxiety and affects are not necessarily of the nature of signifiers, once again. Signifiers are the net and anxiety and affects are the holes between the meshing of the nets. Anger, as an affect, is what happens in subjects when “the little pegs won’t fit into the little holes.” In other words, anger is what some subjects feel when they can not use the signifiers to capture anxiety. Put another way, all of the signifiers written above are part of the net, even, and especially, the signifier “anxiety”.


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